All of us do plenty of things throughout the course of our day on automatic — where we just let our hands or whatever body part is involved get on with the job while we think about other things. Usually these are mindless jobs like washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, or anything else we can pretty much do by rote.
I'm sure that most of you are also familiar with the sensation of all of sudden becoming fully aware of what you're doing and how much of a shock that can be. If you're washing the dishes with a good chunk of your brain shut down and all of a sudden your hands slip and the dish you're washing makes a loud noise as it bangs against the side of the sink your reaction is unusually strong considering the circumstances.
Having been in an almost meditative state, the abrupt return to reality is the most likely reason for your shock. The noise was the trigger that caused you to be returned but wasn't necessarily what you reacted to. Suddenly finding yourself standing at the kitchen sink with your arms up to the elbows in soapy water and a sink full of dishes after you had been daydreaming is bound to catch you more then a little off guard.
Now here's something else to try and get your head around, and it's sort of akin to the sensation I was just describing, but a little more extreme. First suppose that your whole life has been similar to the way you feel when washing dishes; that 'here but not here' sensation. But – and this is where it gets tricky – you don't know you're in that state of mind.
Well, it's something like that anyway; you're not in a state of mind where you're blanking things out while doing something mindless, you're blanking things out that you don't even 'know" exist. Of course since you don't know that you're blanking things out, you can't be said to be blanking things out at all – or can you?
Damn, this is harder than I thought it would be; all I've probably done is confuse the crap out of everybody. Maybe I should try a different tack… hmmm, how about this? Have you ever been in a situation where you've wished with all your might that you were somewhere else or that you can't believe what's going on is happening to you? All of a sudden everything begins to feel like it's taking place a long way away and you begin to feel disembodied? It's like your body and you have separated and you're able to watch the proceedings without being involved.
If that's something you've ever felt, then you have experienced what it is like to disassociate at its most basic. Disassociating is a reaction among people who have suffered a severe trauma at some point in their lives and can be as short-lived as the scenario described above, or can be as long lasting as being in a permanent state akin to the one you've achieved while washing the dishes.
Disassociating is also the name now used to describe what used to be known as multiplicity, or multiple personality disorder. In this worst case scenario, a person, usually someone who was habitually sexually abused as a child on an ongoing and protracted basis by their nearest and dearest caregivers, would disassociate so completely as to cease to exist in that moment and another "person" would live through the horror. Depending on the severity of the trauma, a person could have from a minimum of two up to… well, I know one woman who was diagnosed with at least forty personalities.
There has been a lot of bullshit written about multiplicity or disassociating to the point where people expect some sort of Jekyll and Hyde, or other obvious manifestation in a person suffering from this illness. The truth of the matter is that most of the time nobody would ever be able to tell the difference except if they were intimately familiar with the person or the person was triggered by circumstances that brought one of her abused selves to the surface. (My use of the feminine pronoun is deliberate because the majority of cases where sexual abuse has been severe enough for these circumstances to develop have been in women.)
Some of what you've heard about the illness is true; in most cases the person has no recollection of what happens from one personality to the next; a person suffering from severe trauma can "switch" between personalities right in front of you, and a good many people who suffer from this disease do themselves physical harm. While there is no hard and fast rule as to why a person 'cuts' themselves, one of the theories is that the personalities who suffered through the abuse lack the ability to communicate their anger and fear and are lashing out at the person they blame for abandoning them to their abuser, their core self.
Among women who were ritually abused (their abusers used them as part of perverted religious ceremonies ranging from Satanic rites to Christian sin-cleansing rites), there is a tendency to mutilate their sexual identity. The child personalities know it was something to do with their being female that made them a target so they try to remove signs of femininity, or damage themselves sufficiently to reduce their appeal.
Recovery is a long, arduous process known as integration where the patient and counselor work to try and get each personality to communicate with everybody else and the core person. In most cases this involves controlled switching so the therapist can find out what each personality requires to feel safe again. With these sessions being taped, the client can familiarize herself with her other selves' fears and begin to devise methods of offering assurance that their fears are no longer valid and the personality is no longer needed for protection.
Of course multiple personalities are an extreme form of disassociation. More commonly it will take the form of a person believing so strongly that an event isn't happening that they will enter into a state similar to shock in order to escape the experience and will also not remember it happening. Sometimes they are so successful that they forget that it ever happened at all.
All of us have disassociated on occasion, whether from boredom or shock, but for most of us the experience ends when the moment that caused it finishes. But for others less fortunate, it can haunt them for years to come and is a symptom of having suffered trauma too horrific for the human mind to cope with. Like all defense mechanisms, it served a purpose in its time, but will quickly outlive its usefulness and needs to be deactivated before it causes as much damage as that it was originally protecting against.
After all, it's not just the unpleasant things that are shut off — you lose out on everything.